The Briefing 01-26-15

The Briefing 01-26-15

The Briefing


January 26, 2015

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.


It’s Monday, January 26, 2015.  I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

1) Death of Saudi King Abdullah reveals vast worldview differences between nations

As the week came to an end, the Saudi Arabian nation went into a new monarchial generation. The news coming out of Saudi Arabia on Friday was this: King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al Saud, who maintain stability in Saudi Arabia in the face of regional pressure from Islamist and democratic movements, died at about age 91. That came from an official court statement from Saudi Arabia, as was reported on the front page of Friday’s edition of the Wall Street Journal. What makes that really interesting, of course, is the fact, well not only did you have a monarchial change in Saudi Arabia, but the dead king was identified as being about age 91.

A good many Americans probably wondered why a change in terms of the monarch in Saudi Arabia would have such interest in the United States. But for any number of reasons, most importantly history and secondarily oil, the fates of the United States and Saudi Arabia have been linked going back to the 1930s. And we have to go back to the 1930s for the beginning of this nation. The modern state of Saudi Arabia was born in the year 1932 between the two world wars and it was founded by the father of the deceased King – who is also the father of the new King. That would be Abdulaziz al Saud, born in 1902 died in 1953. He took the name ibn Saud when he established Saudi Arabia in terms of a struggle for the Arabian Peninsula against other warring tribes in the year 1932. He is one of those figures right out of a movie like Lawrence of Arabia. And he’s also a figure that had a massive influence, not only in his region of the world, but in ours as well – unbeknownst to many living Americans.

The reason ibn Saud and his sons have played such an outsized role on the world stage is because in 1937 American surveyors discovered the largest deposit of oil on the planet – at least as is known until today – in the sands of Saudi Arabia; changing the entire picture of the world when it came to its economic engine and changing the fate of the house of Saud, as the royal house is known. Unlike other dynasties in the same region, the house of Saud was immediately flush with cash and it has been ever since the 1930s when oil was discovered. Unlike the Hashemite rulers of Jordan, unlike rulers in terms of other nations in the area, it is the house of Saud that has ruled supreme when it comes, first of all, to economic influence, but secondly when it comes to the role of the nation in the religion of Islam.

The King of Saudi Arabia also has the title of the Custodian of the Two Mosques. And when it comes to the most important cities in the history of Islam and in the religion of Islam, both of them are under the direct custody – indeed under the dynastic rule – of the house of Saud. One of the reasons I want to give attention to this dynastic shift on The Briefing today is to remind all of us as Christians that we live in a world that is operating by very different worldviews, and one of the most graphic displays of a contrast in worldview is that between the governmental structure of Saudi Arabia and that of the United States – or for that matter, that of the Western world as a whole.

You probably remember enough from your history or civics classes to remember that Europe itself was once populated by warring tribes. At some point over a long period of centuries it was unified under monarchial autocrats, dictatorial and monarchial rulers, who claimed a dynastic role, who claim the divine right of kings and who claimed a family hereditary line in terms of their dynasty. The dynastic rule was passed from King to Prince and immediately upon the death of the king the Prince became King, thus the custom in the United Kingdom of the expression “The King is dead, long live the King.” Of course there have been Queens, as is now the case in terms of the monarch of the United Kingdom. But Queen Elizabeth II bears almost no political resemblance in terms of power and authority, or culture shaping power, to that of her namesake, Elizabeth I.

But when it comes to dynasties it is hard to come close to the dynasty of the house of Saud. Abdulaziz al Saud, again later known as Ibn Saud, had 22 wives. It is thought he had at least 45 sons, 36 of his sons lived to adulthood in order to have children of their own. The new King of Saudi Arabia, King Salman, is the next to the last of his sons. There is only one more and he has become the crown Prince. And these are not exactly young rulers. The new King, King Salman, is 79 years old. The new crown Prince, Prince Muqrin is 10 years younger, but that means he’s the sprightly age of 69. Now what makes that really interesting is that we’re looking at one of the most powerful nations on earth in terms of economic power, we’re looking at one of most influential and strategic places on earth, and we’re looking at one man and his many sons who have ruled from 1932 to the present. In other words, we are now looking at a crown Prince who is still the half-brother of the current and new King.

Well one of the things that should come immediately to mind is that it takes a certain worldview to uphold such a monarchy, it takes a certain worldview built into a population of millions to accept this kind of dynastic rule and simply to accept that it makes sense – that the son of a man who died in 1953 would still be king and that his half-brother would necessarily become the next king and be granted autocratic power. And when we’re talking about autocratic power we mean real autocratic power.

Writing about the story for the Los Angeles Times reporter Alexandra Zavis gets right to the point when she makes clear that the houses of Saud is held together not only by this dynastic control, but by the fusion of the dynasty and a very radical vision of Islam. In order to make this point she goes back not to 1932, she goes back to the year 1774, two years before the American Revolution when the House of Saud was first established and the first kingdom of Saudi Arabia. She writes,

“The anointment of the House of Saud more than three centuries ago came with a pledge to rule in tandem with the austere clerics of Wahhabi Islam whose puritanical theology has provided some of the underpinnings for extremist groups throughout the Middle East.”

This leads to a great quandary, a great puzzle in terms of the current world scene. The United States hardly has a closer ally than Saudi Arabia when it comes to matters military and strategic in the Middle East. And yet in terms of worldview it is hard to imagine two cultures that are more radically unlike one another than the culture of the United States and that of Saudi Arabia. And even as we are tied together by strategic interest and oil – not the oil itself is not a strategic interest – we are also divided by a worldview clash that is simply monumental. For most Americans if they came to understand the worldview of the nation of Saudi Arabia they would quickly understand that it would take centuries of historical rewind, in terms of Western culture, to come anywhere close. For that matter, even when you’re looking at the Western nation of absolute rule when it comes to Kings, there really is no absolute rule in the Western tradition quite like the absolute rule that is quite current in terms of the House of Saud. Perhaps the closest thing you could come outside the nation of Saudi Arabia in terms of something at least more Western will be the role of the Russian czars.

Alexandra Zavis writes,

“Wahhabi doctrine is so deeply entrenched in the desert kingdom that few believe that King Salman — an elderly brother of the late King Abdullah who took the throne this week — is likely to make many reforms.”

She goes on to report, and this is very important,

“The grand bargain forged in 1774 between Mohammed ibn al Saud, then a minor clan leader, and the cleric Mohammed Abdul Wahhab, provided the ideological justification for uniting the fractious tribes scattered across the Arabian Peninsula under the rule of the House of Saud.”

She goes on to write,

“As their empire expanded, so did the influence of the Wahhabi clerical establishment, which seeks to convert Muslims to their ‘purer’ form of Islam,”

“…billions of dollars from the country’s rich oil earnings have been spent on spreading Wahhabism around the world.”

Then we go back to the great quandary I mentioned earlier; how can a nation so strategically tied to the United States, politically and economically in many senses, be also a nation that is governed by a worldview that is so radically distinct? And how is it that this very same nation claims as the legitimacy of its own dynastic rule the very form of Islam that has been feeding Islamic terrorism that this kingdom has been fighting even for its own survival for the better part of the last five decades? That is indeed one of the great question marks of the modern era.

But at this point American Christians need to understand the quandaries only grow more complicated, the issues more developed and difficult. For instance, even as the king died on Friday – that is King Abdullah ibn Abdulaziz al Saud – the American government ordered the lowering of the American flag to half-mast in American installations. That’s really something; the death of the Saudi King responded to by the American White House with an order that the American flag be lowered to half-mast.

Even as Alexandra Zavis did a fantastic job in the Los Angeles Times pointing out the fusion of the House of Saud with Wahhabi Islam, similarly and unsurprisingly, Ross Douthat writing in Sunday’s edition of the New York Times got right to the issue when he spoke of Americans as “prisoners of the Saudi’s.” He writes with great moral insight and I quote,

“The Western response to the death of Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud, king of Saudi Arabia and custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, followed two paths. Along one, various officials and luminaries offered the gestures … [you would] expect,”

But he says in terms of the other response,

“Anyone outside Western officialdom was free to tell the fuller truth: that Abdullah presided over one of the world’s most wicked nonpariah states, whose domestic policies are almost cartoonishly repressive and whose international influence has been strikingly malign. His dynasty is founded on gangsterish control over a precious natural resource, sustained by an unholy alliance with a most cruel interpretation of Islam and protected by the United States and its allies out of fear of worse alternatives if it fell.”

Here again we as Christians face the reality of trying to operate in a fallen world – a world that operates by so many worldviews and many of those worldviews in outright conflict. The conflict between the worldview of Wahhabi Islam and that of the modern secular West is almost impossible to calculate. The closer you look at the Saudi regime with its public beheadings, public floggings, and the fact that women can be arrested for even trying to drive, is hard to square that with the modern age – not to mention to square with American moral foreign-policy. But we are living in a dangerous world. We’re living in a world in which just as Ross Douthat said, America has been linked with the Saudi Arabian regime precisely because – he got exactly right – we’re far more afraid of what might come as the alternative.

We’re living in a strange world. And of course time and again we have to come back and say we are living in a fallen world. And one of the very difficult challenges we face not only as individuals, not only as corporations, not only as institutions, not only as churches and congregations, but more fundamentally, in this sense, as nations trying to survive in a world of other nations; trying to survive to uphold a worldview in a world of other worldviews, trying to uphold a democratic experiment when much of the world has never even attempted it and – as is symbolized by Saudi Arabia – has rejected the idea outright.

I go back to the fact that it takes a certain worldview to uphold this kind of dynastic claim. A worldview that really believes that somehow a family has been appointed as the natural leaders to be granted autocratic rule. You really do have to go a long way back in Western history to find that. But as we bring this to an end, at least in terms of this issue, let’s remember that our form of government also requires a worldview and that worldview also require some explanation and understanding of human rights, an understanding of human dignity, an understanding of the importance of the individual, and furthermore an understanding of the importance that the only government that has legitimacy is one that in some sense has received the consent of the governed.

So consider the worldview of Saudi Arabia and consider how the worldview of Wahhabi Islam is spreading – spreading quite quickly – into other parts of the world. And then look at the United States where we felt that our worldview was the net export in terms of worldview after our victory in the Second World War and the end of the Cold War – which we also counted as a victory. When it comes to these two worldviews, which will actually dominate for the rest of the 21st century? Well, time will tell.

2) France aims to reinforce secular values through education in effort to win worldview clash

Next, just because the timing is perfect I go to an article by Maïa de la Baume that appeared in the New York Times over the weekend. Here’s the headline, Paris Announces Plan to Promote Secular Values. It’s almost as if they weren’t reading the headlines about the worldview clash that we described. It’s almost as if they haven’t been reading the recent headlines, tragically enough, from their own country. De la Baume writes,

“Officials in France announced new measures on Thursday aimed at reinforcing secular values at French schools, after the terrorist attacks in and around Paris exposed serious cultural rifts between children in heavily immigrant communities and others in classrooms throughout the country.”

According to the report, teachers are to receive new training, students will be exposed more deeply to civics and morals lessons, and classroom activities would include the singing of the French national anthem. What brought about these new civics lessons and the spending of millions of dollars now approved by the French government for these civics lessons for secular values? It wasn’t so much the Charlie Hebdo attacks that took place, murderously so, just a matter of a couple weeks ago, it was the fact that in the aftermath of that massacre, any number of children in the French schools refused to observe the moment of silence the government had called; indicating that they sided with the terrorists, not with the victims.

I really do think this is a big story. As de la Baume as reports,

“French schools already have a secular code of conduct, but about 1,000 teachers and staff members would be trained on questions of ‘laïcité,’ [that is] France’s secular identity, codified under a century-old law on the separation of church and state.”

So now you have the French government, spending millions of dollars, to educate 1,000 teachers about how to make students more secular by singing the French national anthem and other civics activities in terms of the public schools in France; trying to persuade them of the superiority of a secular worldview as they look to the future and their own adulthood.

Now I have pointed to this issue before but this new story is just too graphic to be ignored; especially in light of the previous report about the passing of the Saudi King and the continuation of the House of Saud, and most especially the fusion of the government of Saudi Arabia and Wahhabi Islam. Now we have the French government, in the aftermath of this horrifying event, just two weeks ago announcing that in response to the fact that thousands of schoolchildren in its schools – presumably, according to this report, Muslim schoolchildren – refused to observe the moment of silence for the victims. The response is not a robust understanding of human dignity as grounded in anything like the biblical worldview, it’s not a counter narrative that holds to a deeper and more profound understanding of the grounding of human dignity, it is instead a reassertion of the French values of secularism.

One of the real issues the French government now confronts is that it doesn’t have a narrative that’s compelling. At least it doesn’t have a narrative that is, in any way, as compelling as that of radical Islam. Issues of principle aside, just by a pragmatic consideration, it is very hard to believe that spending millions of dollars to educate 1,000 teachers to make those children more secular has any chance of working. But it also is a reflection of something else. Once a society is committed itself to this kind of official secularism, it really has nowhere to go; nowhere to go but spending more money to try to teach more teachers how to convert more people who aren’t secular into being secular. It’s just hard to imagine that anything like this has any chance of working, not because they’re not spending enough money, but because they simply don’t have a more powerful story to tell.

3) South Korean soap operas threaten to subvert North Korean regime

Speaking of stories, the human being is a narrative creature. We live by stories, we live on a story – for that matter we are living out a story – and we love the stories of others. Whether good stories or bad stories, moral stories or immoral stories, stories have the power to capture the human imagination and just about everyone knows it, including the makers of soap operas, including the makers of soap operas in South Korea; and especially, as it turns out, including the totalitarian ruler of North Korea. There’s a big story here, it made the front page of Sunday’s edition of the New York Times. The headline, North Korea’s Forbidden Love? Smuggled, Illegal Soap Operas, it may not sound like an important story but I promise you, it is.

Choe Sang-Hun writes,

“As a math professor in North Korea, Jang Se-yul was among the nation’s relatively privileged classes; he got to sit in special seats in restaurants and on crowded trains, and more important in a country where many go hungry, was given priority for government food rations. Then he risked it all — for a soap opera from South Korea.

The temptation in this case was ‘Scent of a Man,’ an 18-episode drama about the forbidden love between an ex-convict and his stepsister. A graduate student [according to the report] had offered him the bundle of banned CDs smuggled into the North and, too curious to resist, Mr. Jang and five other professors huddled in one of their homes binge watching until dawn. They were careful to pull the curtains to escape the prying eyes of neighbors taught to turn in their fellow citizens for seditious activities. But they were caught anyway and demoted to manual labor at a power plant.”

For watching “Scent of a Man,” an 18 episode South Korean soap opera.  Choe Sang-Hun is writing about the fact that the North Korean dictator is living in fear of very bad South Korean soap operas. As the article states,

“The decidedly lowbrow dramas — with names like ‘Bad Housewife’ and ‘Red Bean Bread’ — have, in fact, become something of a cultural Trojan horse, sneaking visions of the bustling South into the tightly controlled, impoverished North alongside the usual sudsy fare of betrayals, bouts of ill-timed amnesia and, at least once, a love affair with an alien.”

But this is where this ridiculous story gets really serious. As the New York Times reports – remember this is the New York Times and this is the front page of yesterday’s paper – as the report indicates, North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un has issued increasingly pointed warnings to his subjects about what he calls “the poisonous elements of capitalism” crossing China’s border with the North tempting even his communist elite, as the New York Times says,

“Defectors say there has been a severe crackdown on smugglers, and in the fall, South Korean intelligence reported hearing that Mr. Kim was so shaken by the spread of the soaps that he ordered the execution of 10 Workers’ Party officials accused of succumbing to the shows’ allure, according to lawmakers who had been briefed on the matter at a parliamentary hearing.”

Well now we end where we began; with the question what kind of worldview upholds a regime like this? What kind of worldview drives the most evil regime imaginable? And that’s really saying something in terms of the 21st century – perhaps we ought to say, so far.

And in the final analysis, what kind of regime is actually living in fear of soap operas coming from the South? We are defined, we might say, by what we fear. And if you fear your regime might fall because of soap operas, that really says it all. But it also reminds us as Christians that a story is never merely a story. There is always more than the storyline itself, and in this case, these soap operas have become cultural Trojan horses; bringing a vision of a very different life to the North when they see the life depicted in terms of the South. And furthermore, that reminds us of something that was really, really important in terms of the Cold War and continues to be important in the nations like China now. It’s not so much the American stories that are being told by our television exports that seem to have such a massive cultural influence, it is the fact, at least in China, that the stories can even be told.

The popularity of an American show like ‘House of Cards’ is not so much because they believe the stories but because they can hardly believe that an American government would allow such a story to be told and the fact that they are told is very revealing and perhaps more revealing than the stories themselves to the Chinese. It is also the case that when it came to the Soviet Union and to the nations under its control, it wasn’t just the American stories that got smuggled in that really began to crack that edifice, it was the advertisements. Because the advertisements themselves were telling stories, perhaps unintentionally, that caught the attention of those living in the repressive regimes behind the Iron Curtain. As one Soviet dissident put it, it said a great deal to people behind the Iron Curtain that American dogs appear to eat so well while so many millions on their side of the Iron Curtain were dying of hunger.


Thanks for listening to The Briefing. For more information go to my website at You can follow me on Twitter by going to For information on The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary go to For information on Boyce College just go to I’ll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.

Podcast Transcript

1) Death of Saudi King Abdullah reveals vast worldview differences between nations

Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah Dies, Wall Street Journal (Ellen Knickmeyer and Ahemd Al Omran)

Blogger sentenced to 1,000 lashes: Saudi Arabia’s often-brutal pact with its clerics, Los Angeles (Alexandra Zavis)

Prisoners of the Saudis, New York Times (Ross Douthat)

2) France aims to reinforce secular values through education in effort to win worldview clash

Paris Announces Plan to Promote Secular Values, New York Times (Maïa de la Baume)

3) South Korean soap operas threaten to subvert North Korean regime

North Korea’s Forbidden Love? Smuggled, Illegal Soap Operas, New York Times (Choe Sang-Hun)

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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